A subject guide to the literary manuscript collections at the Bodleian Library, Oxford
History and scope of the literary collections
Famously averse to books in the vernacular, Sir Thomas Bodley’s first catalogue of 1605 described 5000 items, of which 170 were written in English and only three were works of literature: a 1561 Chaucer; Lydgate’s Fall of Princes and Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesie. However, in 1610, Bodley entered into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London to supply the Bodleian Library with copies of every new book published in England. From this time on, books in English became one of the Library’s strengths, although the uptake was always selective and well into the nineteenth century plays, novels and (to a lesser extent) poetry, were not claimed as copyright.
Holdings from the seventeenth century
The acquisition of English literary manuscripts began in earnest in the late seventeenth century, when the Library started to develop its now internationally important collections relating to this period. Most lavish among its benefactors was Richard Rawlinson who, in 1755, bequeathed nearly 2,000 books and upwards of 4,800 manuscripts. Among the manuscripts were more than 250 now assigned to Bodleian’s Rawlinson Poetry classification, consisting mostly of plays and poetical miscellanies, memorably the Shakespeare attribution ‘Shall I die, shall I fly’ (MS. Rawl. poet. 160, fol. 8v). Seventy years later, the Bodleian was able to augment its holdings of Elizabethan drama and poetry by the 1821 gift of Edmund Malone’s extensively annotated early printed editions, including the famous Shakespeare Quartos and works by Beaumont and Fletcher, Chapman, Greene, Jonson and Massinger.
In the nineteenth century, another great Bodleian benefactor, Francis Douce, bequeathed his vast library. Among the 17,000 books and nearly 500 manuscripts and charters were curiosities of literature often overlooked by other collectors: chapbooks and children’s penny books, as well as poems, songs, ballads and popular plays, spanning the 17th and 18th centuries.
Later acquisitions have included two important purchases: the first, in 1952, from P.J. Dobell, of four Thomas Traherne manuscripts, including the ‘Centuries of Meditations’ as it is familiarly-known (MS. Eng. th. e. 50), and in 1971, the only surviving complete autograph of John Donne, ‘A Letter to the Lady Carey’ (MS. Eng. poet. d. 197).
Holdings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
The Bodleian’s unrivalled holdings are centred on two poets: Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Shelley's manuscripts rank among the finest in the Library’s collections (see also additional Shelley papers, deeds and relics) and have established the Bodleian as a focus for the study of the Romantic movement. As well as Shelley’s own papers, the Library houses manuscripts relating to Mary Shelley and her family, and the papers of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.
Research into the second generation of Romantics was augmented in 1978 when the Lovelace-Byron papers were placed on long-term deposit, while the cultural precursors of Romanticism are represented in the Bodleian’s extensive collections of antiquaries’ papers (among them John Aubrey, Elias Ashmole and William Stukeley), and the correspondence and literary papers of William Gilpin.
In contrast to Shelley’s well-publicized life and works, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s reputation is wholly posthumous and derives from the corpus of manuscripts which he gave into the keeping of the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. These were purchased by the Library in 1953, together with Hopkins’s personal correspondence. Subsequently Robert Bridges’s own papers – including the Hopkins ‘A’ manuscript – were placed on long-term deposit in the Bodleian.
Other holdings in this period range from single items – such as Jane Austen’s ‘Volume the First’ (digital facsimile available online) – to extensive archives of holograph works, correspondence, diaries and miscellaneous papers of Maria Edgeworth and her family; Arthur Hugh Clough; James Thomson, and the aunt and niece partnership ‘Michael Field’. The Library also houses substantial collections relating to William Morris (books, manuscripts and letters) and the Rossettis (including Christina Rossetti poems, Dante Gabriel Rossetti verse, autobiographical manuscripts of Gabriele and W.M. Rossetti and a large facsimile archive of material held in other institutions).
The twentieth century to the present
The Bodleian’s manuscript holdings for the modern period reflect the Library’s interest in acquiring papers of authors who have a connection with the University and the City of Oxford. The Bodleian holds substantial archives relating to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and other members of the Inklings circle. Other Oxford authors include Joyce Cary, Kenneth Grahame, T.E. Lawrence, Louis MacNeice, John Masefield, Barbara Pym and Bruce Chatwin. The gift of Brian Aldiss’s papers, the purchase of Alan Garner’s and the long-term deposit of Michael Moorcock’s have also strengthened the Library’s holdings in the field of Fantasy writing, while the purchase of Walter de la Mare’s archive of correspondence, literary and family papers has enhanced the Library’s research materials into children’s literature.
There is also a profusion of smaller gatherings of material to be found in the Bodleian’s general collections: important single manuscripts and groups of documents, such as W.H. Auden’s juvenilia and letters; letters and papers of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Bruce Montgomery and other Movement writers (including Iris Murdoch); poetry manuscripts of Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and W.B. Yeats, and manuscripts and papers of T.S. and Vivienne Eliot.
It is also important to note that literary papers are by no means confined to ‘literary’ collections in the Bodleian, as Isaiah Berlin’s archive – with its enormous range of correspondents – demonstrates, or that of the society hostess, Sibyl Colefax, which is a treasure trove of letters and autographs of the glamorous literati and well-connected of the period.